The History Research Process


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Kristina Claunch
Library (NGL) Room 223G

Before You Start Searching

BEFORE you sit down at the computer to start searching for books, articles, and primary sources, take a moment to think about WHAT you will search for.

Write down key words
, phrases, names, and dates that might relate to your topic.

  • Think about synonyms or words with related meanings. For example, women, females, wives  
  • Think about historical language as well as modern. For instance, African American would not appear in 18th-century documents, so also list terms like black, colored, Negro
  • Put phrases (multiple words that need to be together in a certain order) inside "quotation marks."

Male student frowning in concentration and writing in a notebook 
HOW do you come up with the words to write down?

  • Use your class textbook to help you get started.
  • Read encyclopedia entries about a related person, place, event, or concept to get ideas for more words. Instead of using Wikipedia for this, search Reference Universe from the Library.
  • Search the Oxford Historical Thesaurus to discover historical synonyms for modern words.
  • As you find primary and secondary sources, see what language they use, and add new terms to your list to help you refine additional searches.
  • Do a Google search to try and locate historical synonyms for the modern term you know.

Make notes about how these words and phrases relate to each other, using AND, OR, and NOT to connect ideas (see diagrams below).

  • Use OR to connect synonyms or words that could be interchanged: a source should have at least one. Example: cats OR felines. This finds MORE sources than either word alone would find ("or gets you more!").
  • Use AND to connect separate ideas that need to co-exist; a source should have all. Example: "African Americans" AND "Civil War". This finds FEWER sources than either word alone would find.  
  • Use NOT to exclude irrelevant information that might be found by the same keywords. Example: cowboys NOT football. This finds FEWER sources than the first word alone would find.

 Venn diagram illustrating results of a Boolean search for cats OR felines

Venn diagram illustrating results of a Boolean search for African Americans AND Civil War

Venn diagram illustrating results of a Boolean search for cowboys NOT football

Video: Intro to Connecting Search Terms for More Effective Searching

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Search Reference Universe

Reference Universe logo

Search a selection of print and electronic encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other Reference books.


Oxford Historical Thesaurus

OED Online
Historical Thesaurus


Using Your Word List in Searching

Consider WHAT is being searched--this affects HOW you search!

Pair of road signs pointing opposite directions to Broad search and Narrow search

Library Databases usually search full text (that is, every word in the article)  --> search for very specific words and ideas

Library Catalog searches only metadata (that is, a brief description of the item and what it's about)  --> search for broader, more general ideas, then flip through the books to look for the more specific topic.

  • Example: You want information about African Americans who served in a specific military role. Step back; search the catalog for more general books about the history of African Americans in the military. Flip through those books to see if they address the specific military role.

Newsflash: Keyword Searching Doesn't Always Work!

Red-headed woman wearing glasses and reading a bookRemember: When you are searching primary documents, keyword searching (what you are used to doing in Google) will NOT always be the best approach.

Some research topics simply don't relate to what people explicitly wrote in literal words.

Some topics may require that you locate a body of cultural works--for example, numerous issues of a certain children's magazine, or large quantities of letters from certain kinds of people--and just READ to see what you find.

Read between the lines. Read for what is implied, not just what is baldly stated. Make inferences. Use critical thinking.

Think "Around" What You Hope to Find

With digital versions of historical documents, keyword searching sometimes works very poorly because a computer is reading and "translating" the words in the document (not a human).

True Story: A student was searching eighteenth century documents online for information about how people dealt with lice in their wigs. But the database often matched the word rice in a document instead of lice--with the low-quality, faded type on an old newspaper or magazine, the computer just couldn't tell the difference!

In a case like this, you need to "think around" what you hope to find. If searching for the word lice isn't working, what else could you search for? Think about combinations of wigs, hair, vermin, pests, insects, louse (the singular of lice).

You may also want to explore proximity searching, a technique that will only match the second word, lice, if it occurs very close to the first word, wig (say, within 5 or 10 words of each other). The trick is to read the Help or FAQ page for each database to learn exactly how to type a proximity search in that database; each one is a little different. Ask the History Librarian if you would like more help using proximity searching.

Video: People's Names as Search Terms

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Video: Foreign People's Names as Search Terms

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Video: Place Names as Search Terms

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